The boat stops near sunset on a vast expanse of sand flanking Peru’s Rio Tambopata. We are just miles from the Bolivian border and there is not a soul around for miles. Our guide, Pedro Lima, points out tapir tracks in the sand. Tapirs are large, plant-eating mammals that live in the forests and grasslands of Central and South America and can weigh up to 800 pounds. The tracks we see today indicate that this tapir is quite large.
“Look. Look,” says Pedro excitedly. “Jaguar tracks too!”
We follow the two sets of tracks for about 50 yards along the wet river bank. Sand fleas, Tambopata style, buzz around our heads. Thanks to a huge application of DEET they don’t land on my face, but the pending attack is irritating at best. No matter, we continue to follow the tracks.
“Ah, no more tapir tracks,” remarks Pedro. “Only jaguar now. Guess what happened?”
The leading question is just one of many we hear on our eight-day trip in Peru’s Amazon Basin. These waters eventually spill out into the Atlantic off Brazil’s coast some 4000 miles away. Many claim that the Tambopata is the most bio-diverse environment along this seemingly endless stretch of river, if not the entire planet. And I believe that. More than 10,000 species of plants, over 600 species of birds, 200 species of mammals and thousands of species of insects including 1000 butterfly species all claim this place as home, and new species are found every year.
We had traveled here in 2011 and saw 150 kinds of birds in four days thanks to our super guide, Fino Toledo, but we were only four hours up river on that trip. Fino talked about a seven-hour river trip that arrived at the Tambopata Reserve void of any human habitation. He bragged about six species of macaws, seven species of monkeys and animals few ever get to see. That vivid description sat in my head for four years, curiosity eating away. It finally broke a steadfast rule-don’t return to the same place. Rather, explore new horizons. Instead, we returned to the Tambopata, satisfying our relentless urge.